Confidently Opposed to Arrogance

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arroganceby R. Gidon Rothstein

I hold this truth to be Jewishly self-evident, that arrogance is worse than other poor character traits; that it constitutes so fundamental a flaw as to disqualify the unrepentantly arrogant from leadership in the Jewish community.

Join me in four steps to show that that captures the mainstream view of Jewish tradition:

Step One: I offer traditional texts to back the claim that arrogance is qualitatively different from run of the mill human imperfections.

Step Two: Seeing the seriousness of the problem of arrogance should help us realize that we cannot accept arrogant leaders. It is not much different, I think the sources show, from accepting leaders who flout halachah.

Step Three: I offer three ways arrogance shows itself. To know how to avoid it, or to see its danger signals, we have to be sure we know it when we see it.  It is often confused with confidence, for example, with problematic results.

Step Four: I suggest that the surrounding culture’s concern with success, without regard to method, dulls our sensitivities. Reminding ourselves that Jewish tradition diverges from the rest of the world on this question will help us reconnect to this Jewish value.

The Flaw

Arrogance has many names, such as the Scriptural גאוה, pride, גבחות הלב, haughtiness of heart, or the Mishnaic גסות הרוח, grossness of spirit. Mishlei 16:5 says a haughty person is an abomination to Hashem; R. Yochanan in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai, Sotah 4b, takes to mean that it is as if that person worships a being other than Hashem (since alien worship is also referred to as abomination). R. Yochanan on his own account adds that it is as if the person denies the existence of God, since Devarim 8:14 warns us ורם לבביך ושכחת את ה’, your heart will become proud (or mighty), and you will forget Hashem.

Three verses earlier, the Torah warned against forgetting Hashem, which this verse attributes to becoming proud. On that basis, Semag takes the earlier verse to have established a prohibition (number 64 in his list) against becoming proud (or arrogant) when Hashem showers us with bounty.

(I thank R. Gil Student for reminding me of this. There and in the introduction to that section, Semag tells of having been on the verge of completing his book when he had a dream that chided him for omitting a central principle of the religion, not forgetting Hashem. His repeating the story suggests he saw it as particularly significant for us to learn, that arrogance is both prohibited and a central focus of the religion.)

Rambam, too, accords arrogance special status.  In Avot 4:4, R. Levitas of Yavneh says a Jew should be מאד מאד שפל רוח, very, very lowly of spirit. Rambam there expands at unusual length on the necessity of cultivating humility, not just modesty. In Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character 2:3, he says that גאוה is one of two character traits (the other is כעס, anger) where the middle path is not recommended. We should seek the middle, or close to it, in traits like generosity, or appetites like eating, but we are to strive to excise arrogance.

Leaders Need To Model Our Values

Semag, Rambam, and others whom we’ll see below (as well as many others I have no space to review) show why arrogance should be a red line in our leaders.  We would not (or should not) accept a Torah leader who casually violates Jewish law; arrogance is a serious enough abrogation of the Torah’s values that it should raise concerns as to how well this person understands the tradition he or she is supposed to be leading us in upholding.

One important exception is a person struggling with arrogance. Someone born with but clearly working to reduce his or her arrogance– including apologizing when it manifests and rededicating to doing better—is not, to my mind, included in the need to avoid arrogant leaders.

But repeatedly today, Jewish communities (shuls, schools, communal organizations) tolerate or endorse leaders who give every appearance of arrogance, with no indication that anyone sees it as a problem. After more than one recent scandal, people have mentioned that they always knew the wrongdoer was arrogant, but never expected this.

There wasn’t necessarily reason to expect this. Part of what makes it scandalous behavior is that we cannot imagine someone reasonable doing that. Crazy takes us by surprise, and it is often Monday-morning quarterbacking to blame those around that person for not having caught it.

But when we hear that everyone knew the wrongdoer was arrogant, we can wonder at people’s missing that red light. Sometimes, the justification is that this arrogant leader is successful, in whatever way that institution defines success.  It seems to me that Tanach, the Gemara, Rambam, Semag, et al, show us that’s an error.

Arrogance disqualifies, in and of itself; the sooner we remember that, the better off we’ll be. In addition, arrogance leads to other more clearly problematic actions, including those scandalous behaviors we might not have been expected to anticipate. To see why, let’s be sure we know how to recognize arrogance when it appears.

Arrogance of Personal Treatment

In the Avot commentary, Rambam defines humility as being unconcerned with personal insults or mistreatments. Rabbenu Yonah there notes that Sotah 5a records a view that a Torah scholar should have 1/64th of arrogance. He defines that as objecting to being mistreated, but R. Levitas follows the view (as does Rambam and as R. Yonah rules), that even that is not the ideal.

The opposite of arrogance, they tell us, is losing the sense of מגיע לי, of deserving certain treatment. It is a relinquishing of ego. Arrogance, by implication, is a sense of ego and entitlement, seeing oneself as deserving of certain kinds of treatment. That can lead arrogant leaders to mistreat others verbally and physically, it can lead them to financial misconduct, and it can lead them to come to assume they are right in the face of much evidence to the contrary (with further consequences down the road).

Incidentally, in the last paragraph of Laws of Talmud Torah, Rambam reminds us that sometimes it’s not ego to require being treated a certain way. His example is a Torah scholar insulted in public, where the scholar has to react to the insult to the honor of the Torah he represents, not his own personal insult.

That opens the door to other situations where opposing mistreatment is also not an expression of ego. It seems plausible, for example, that being a doormat at work can have financial and career consequences. It might be necessary to stand up for oneself in those situations not as a statement of ego but as a means to another end.

That’s a question to be evaluated in each situation.  But it leaves us remembering that whenever it’s about us, we have to worry that arrogance has crept or flooded in.

Mistreating Others

We can also be arrogant in how we treat others. Rosh in his Orchot Chayyim puts Ben Azzai’s call (Avot 4:3) not to denigrate others right after his call to avoid acting superciliously and to be low of spirit (adjurations 66 and 67). That reverses the order of Avot, as if he is reminding us that a sense of superiority leads us to be careless about how we treat others.

Ramban, in his famous letter to his son, reminds him that there is no cause for pride, since all our supposed superiorities are illusory. To foster humility, he encourages us to think of everyone we meet as more important, and treat them that way; thinking or treating them as less important is, by extension, an aspect of arrogance.

My Way or the Highway

A form of arrogance that seems to me under-recognized is misplaced certainty in one’s views. When a Jewish communal leader is positive that his or her view is correct, and is the only way to handle the situation at hand, that seems to me to also reflect arrogance.

It may be that this leader has experienced and hard-earned expertise. It may be he or she has revisited this issue many times. But someone who avoids arrogance like the plague our tradition tells us it is, will present those views with humility, with an openness to the possibility that the current situation is different, or that there might be another, better way to see it.

It is easy to confuse arrogantly certain statements with confident ones. Except that confidence doesn’t overstretch, it tells us only what’s true. The certainty that past experience dictates the reaction to current or future situations is a form of arrogance, as if life has nothing new to throw at us.

When R. Moshe Feinstein published his first volume of responsa (at 64, so he was a well-established Torah scholar, already recognized by many as the giant of his generation), he introduced it with a defense of his right to publish it. I would summarize his claim as “I have done enough work to have the right to an opinion, which I share here.” Not, “here’s the truth, take it from me.”

Nor, it should be noted, did his lack of arrogance impede the boldness of his decision-making. He held what he held, much of it original, even controversial. But he did it without arrogance.

Aside from the principle that we should not have leaders whose characters are so at odds with those of the Torah and tradition, the examples of arrogance I have noted warn us that letting arrogant people take leadership positions puts us at their mercy; when they go bad, as they so often do, we stand around shocked that this could have happened. When the arrogance itself should have told us that anything can happen.

A Culture that Embraces Arrogance

In our times, frequently, overconfidence is seen as an asset, perhaps necessary to leadership. Steve Jobs, despite having been widely recognized as an arrogant jerk, is hailed as a genius, and his companies made a great deal of money, which translates for many into condoning his way of handling those around him.

Jews, as far as I can tell from traditional sources, are supposed to care about how we arrive at success, not only that we arrive there. Our leaders cannot be perfect, since none of us are. But we can and should expect them to model the behavior we promote, or to recognize when they’ve failed and agree to work harder at it.

Letting arrogant leaders go unchallenged means we have lost sight of the character we should strive to have and the kinds of leaders we should cultivate. We should care about our leaders’ bottom lines, financial or in terms of services provided, but we must combine that with their being someone the Jewish community can point to as a model, of dedication, of success, and, yes, of character.

So that when Hashem asks us who we followed in life, we can give a confident, but not arrogant, answer. That we followed the best people we had, the ones who not only did the job well, but did it in the Jewishly best way.

About Gidon Rothstein

6 comments

  1. Nice essay. I have two comments:

    1)”Someone born with but clearly working to reduce his or her arrogance”. I wonder about the nature vs. nurture question regarding tendencies to arrogance. Perhaps its both.

    2)”It seems plausible, for example, that being a doormat at work can have financial and career consequences.”

    I once asked one of my Rebbeim about the difference between humility and self-esteem. He referenced the 2nd perek of Shar HaKeniah of Chovos HaLevavos. R. Bachya contrasts

    אחד מהם כולל את האדם ורבים ממיני בעלי חיים שאינם מדברים, והוא דלות הנפש וסבלה ההיזק, אשר הייתה יכולה לדחותו מפני סכלותה באופני דחייתו. וזה יהיה מן הכסילים שבבני אדם ועמי הארץ, מפני מיעוט ידיעתם וחלישת הכרתם את נפשותם וערכיהם.
    versus

    אבל הכניעה היא אשר תהיה אחר רוממות הנפש, והתנשאה מהשתתף עם הבהמות במידותם המגונות.

    As I understand the text, even if R. Bachya’s “self-esteem” is different than a secular definition of “self”, since he speaks of במידות הטובות והמגונות, we still see the contrast of וסבלה ההיזק, of animals versus people, in the sense of not being a doormat, a doormat being worse than האסיר ביד אויבו in the next category which is ראוי בטבע(see Pas Lechem’s analogy, quoted in English translation linked below,of “peasant who bears the smoke of the stove which stings his eyes”).

  2. Amen.
    In the next iteration you might want to consider adding:
    ירמיהו פרק ט

    (כב) כֹּ֣ה׀ אָמַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֗ק אַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֤ל חָכָם֙ בְּחָכְמָת֔וֹ וְאַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֥ל הַגִּבּ֖וֹר בִּגְבֽוּרָת֑וֹ אַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֥ל עָשִׁ֖יר בְּעָשְׁרֽוֹ:
    (כג) כִּ֣י אִם־בְּזֹ֞את יִתְהַלֵּ֣ל הַמִּתְהַלֵּ֗ל הַשְׂכֵּל֘ וְיָדֹ֣עַ אוֹתִי֒ כִּ֚י אֲנִ֣י יְקֹוָ֔ק עֹ֥שֶׂה חֶ֛סֶד מִשְׁפָּ֥ט וּצְדָקָ֖ה בָּאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־בְאֵ֥לֶּה חָפַ֖צְתִּי נְאֻם־יְקֹוָֽק: ס

    as well as the halachic implications of this trait as subsumed in the laws of yuhara (presumptuousness/aarogance?)

  3. Actually one definition of yuhara is acting holier than thou where the thou is the person themselves (e.g. why didn’t mar ukva wait 24 hours between milk and meat like his father did)

  4. Rabbi Baruch Chait, in a footnote to his children’s book “The Incredible Voyage to Good Middos” argues that the Orchos Tzadiqim identifies anavah as the foundation of all good middos and gaavah the source of all the bad ones. To the extent that he teaches the reader to treat “yeitzer hatov” and “anivus” as synonyms.

  5. My previous comment should read “I once asked…difference between arrogance and self-esteem”(a question R. AJ Twerski discusses).

    Also, the Hebrew and English links didn’t post, but if you google “Shaar HaKnia – Gate of Submission”, you can see the Pas Lechem’s analogy I was referring to.

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